Montana Lawmakers Again Take Aim at Delisting Grizzly Bears

Critics of resolution to lump distinct population segments into a single group say it’s ‘factually and functionally wrong’

By Tristan Scott

Montana lawmakers have for the second legislative session in a row introduced a joint resolution to delist grizzly bears from the endangered species list, a proposed measure aimed at ramping up pressure on the state’s congressional delegation.

Biologists charged with the complicated quest to successfully recover grizzly bears, however, have shot back that the core of the resolution fails to take into account the science surrounding the region’s grizzly bear populations, and is riddled with inaccuracies about decades of data.

Introduced by Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Libby, the joint resolution asks Montana’s congressional delegation to draft a bill assigning all responsibility for grizzly management to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks while declaring delisting exempt from further court review. A nearly identical bill passed in 2017, but the state’s delegation never acted on it.

Grizzlies in the Lower 48 are federally protected as a threatened species, but their management would revert to state control if those protections are lifted. A critical part of the recovery strategy crafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established six distinct recovery zones in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington.

The largest recovery zone in terms of distinct population segments of grizzlies is the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a sprawling region situated in Northwest Montana that includes Glacier National Park and portions of two Indian reservations, five national forests, and four wilderness areas, which is home to an estimated 1,000 bears. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho around Yellowstone National Park has an estimated 750 grizzlies.

Other population segments are much smaller.

The Bitterroot Ecosystem straddling the Montana-Idaho border does not have any resident grizzly bears, and only a few bears have been recorded in the North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington. The Selkirk Ecosystem in north Idaho and the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in northwest Montana each have an estimated 50 to 60 grizzlies.

Efforts by federal officials to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies stalled last September, when a federal judge in Missoula reversed a U.S. Interior Department decision that would have allowed hunting of the animals in areas around Yellowstone National Park.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials had hoped to start removing Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bears from the endangered species list this year, a move that would also allow people to hunt the animals. However, according to Fish and Wildlife Service bear recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley, those efforts are now on hold because of the ongoing litigation over delisting grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

That’s at the heart of Cuffe’s joint resolution — “to get the courts out of grizzly bear management,” he said, a perennial source of frustration for proponents of delisting.

“I think it’s time to celebrate the recovery of the population of this amazing creature, and celebrate the successful usage of the Endangered Species Act,” Cuffe said. “It’s time to say, ‘Hey, we have done a really nice job of recovering this population.’”

Practically and scientifically, however, there are a number of problems with the proposal, which creates a single statewide population segment of grizzlies in Montana, combining the trans-boundary territories in a move that is physically and biologically impossible, Fish and Wildlife Service officials say.

The resolution also posits, incorrectly, that the recovery zones in Montana “should be considered one large interbreeding distinct population segment” because of the “genetic exchange between the Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones.”

“It’s not factually correct. There’s been no documented genetic interchange between those systems other than the bears that have been augmented,” Chris Servheen, the nation’s first grizzly bear recovery coordinator who stepped down in 2016 after 35 years, said. “Those augmented bears, we drove them over in the back of a pickup truck. That’s not natural connectivity. And there’s been no genetic exchange between the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide populations.”

It’s also at odds with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s established policy surrounding distinct population segments, which states that the use of international and state boundaries as a measure of grizzly populations “may introduce a non-biological element to the recognition” of those distinct population segments.

“You can’t designate distinct population segments on state lines that draw no biological distinction,” Servheen said. “All of these things are just factually wrong and functionally wrong, and then there’s the issue of political intervention to delist a species, which is fundamentally wrong. This is supposed to be based on science, not on political pressure.”

In 2017, Montana lawmakers introduced a nearly identical resolution, prompting bear biologists to point out a nearly identical host of inaccuracies.

One of those biologists was Wayne Kasworm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery coordinator in Libby, who oversees a program to augment the sparse Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population with transplanted bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Still, Kasworm notes, “there is no known natural genetic interchange from the NCDE to the Cabinet-Yaak.”

“It should be noted that the reason we are transplanting bears into the Cabinet-Yaak in the first place is that there was no natural movement and the population was about to disappear because of excessive human-caused mortality,” Kasworm, who has led grizzly bear monitoring and research in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery area since 1983, told legislators in 2017.

Longtime bear biologists like Kasworm and Servheen, who are charged with the recovery of a charismatic species like the grizzly bear, understand the frustration inherent to a process in which checks and balances often lead to long delays, plodding litigation and intense scrutiny.

But the process was designed in a way to ensure those balances are in place.

“I am certainly sensitive to the frustration with court decisions when they don’t go your way,” Servheen said. “I have firsthand experience with that. But under the law, the United States federal courts have an ability to review federal management decisions, and to circumvent that review through some political interference is wrong. These important decisions should be made based on the best available science and judicial review, not political pressure.”

The resolution goes before the Senate Fish and Game Committee at 3 p.m. on Feb. 14.

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